Positions in sleep

Be mindful of your sleep position

The way you sleep is important, and the best sleep position is one that minimizes biomechanical stresses on the neck and spine. Poor sleeping positions can lead to daytime aches and pain, not to mention poor sleep quality and daytime fatigue.

A good sleeping position is one where you typically be on your back and without a pillow, since this position will allow your spine to be at its best natural curve. Be careful about using thick pillows because they might bend your head and neck, which can affect your breathing and curve your spine. Of course, there is no perfect sleeping position, just like there is no perfect diet. See what fits you. If you don’t like to sleep on your back, it is OK to sleep on your side as long as you are mindful of your jaw, neck and back position.

You might be a side, back or stomach sleeper, but it’s most likely that you’re a variation of all three. While some sleep positions are better than others, there is no right or wrong way of sleeping, as long as you have good posture when you are asleep. There are exceptions, times where a certain position is favored or advised such as during pregnancy, infancy or occasionally for treatment for sleep apnea.

If you experience neck pain, sleeping flat on your back might help you. Also remember to do some neck stretching exercises and use a warm towel before bed to release the tension in the muscles. But while flat and back sleeping can help, it is not for everyone.

For people who snore or have sleep apnea, sleeping on their back might exacerbate their breathing problems. If your spouse nudged you while you were sleeping, you probably were snoring on your back and they are trying to get you to roll over to your side to reduce the snoring. Snoring and sleep apnea get worse on the back because the airway tends to collapse more easily and the tongue falls back over the airway.

Side sleeping may help with reducing the snoring and some of the apneas, but there are a selected group of people who have worse snoring and apneas on their side. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, it is best to talk to your doctor so you can be screened, diagnosed and treated properly.  If your sleep study shows that your snoring and/or sleep apnea occurs exclusively in supine sleep, your might benefit from a side sleeping position devises: An FDA-approved pillow that makes you sleep on the side only; there is an anti-snore shirt and you can also use the old home-made technique where a tennis ball is sewn to the back of the pajama. This position makes it uncomfortable to sleep on your back, so it basically prompts you to stay on your side.

Treatment should be under the supervision of a skilled physician to ensure that you are fully and not partially treated. You might require CPAP therapy instead of positional therapy to optimally treat sleep apnea, which involves wearing a mask that delivers air pressure to keep your airways open.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, the best sleep position for pregnant women is on the side, especially the left side. Sleeping on the left side will increase blood flow to the placenta.

Infants under one year old should sleep on their backs. In the past, parents were told to have their infants sleep on the stomach, but this position was found to increase the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Side sleeping for infants also is not recommended. Sleeping on the back has been shown to lower the incidence of SIDS by nearly 50 percent. To reiterate, the American Academy of Pediatrics definitively recommends that for infants under one year old, the only sleeping position is on the back.

Your head weighs about 10 lbs. This weight can push down on the pillow and push your jaw to the side, causing stress on the muscles, bones and ligaments of the jaw. This may affect blood flow to the teeth and cause you to wake up with a headache or jaw pain. The position also will hinder your ability to swallow at night (yes, we swallow day and night). In addition, if your jaw is pushed to the side while you sleep, your jaw muscles will be stressed. This can cause bruxism (grinding or clenching of the teeth), which damages your teeth.

So, if you want to sleep on your side, it is best to actually sleep on your back with a slight tilt to the side, sort of in between the back and side position.

Stomach sleeping is a bad sleep position for your spine, neck and even breathing. It can restrict your lung’s ability to expand fully. You are forced to turn your head to one side, which stresses your neck and causes misalignment.  Both side and stomach sleepers can also put stress on their shoulders and on the nerves that leave the neck and go down the arms. This can lead to muscle and nerve strain, which can cause numbness in the hands and fingers.

The good news: Side and stomach sleepers may be able to train themselves to sleep on their back.